Rugby: Ireland take big step towards retaining Six Nations title with England win

 Ireland's Rory Best caught at the bottom of a ruck during the Six Nations Rugby match between Ireland and England in The Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Sunday. -- PHOTO: EPA
 Ireland's Rory Best caught at the bottom of a ruck during the Six Nations Rugby match between Ireland and England in The Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Sunday. -- PHOTO: EPA

DUBLIN (REUTERS) - Ireland took a major step towards retaining their Six Nations title with a pulsating 19-9 victory over England on Sunday to become the only side to win their opening three games.

With both sides unbeaten going into a game billed as a potential title decider, Johnny Sexton kicked the hosts into a first-half lead before an acrobatic Robbie Henshaw try sent Ireland travelling to Cardiff dreaming of a grand slam.

Ireland, who equalled their longest ever winning stretch with a 10th successive victory, play Wales in Cardiff on March 14 before facing Scotland at Murrayfield a week later.

"After seeing them against Wales, we knew they were going to come back at us in the second half, but we dug deep and managed to keep them off our line," Ireland coach Joe Schmidt told the BBC. "We do rely on our half backs a lot. They move us around in the right manner and find space."

Ireland bossed the game from the start and a turnover on George Ford within 30 seconds of kick off set the tone. Sexton kicked two early penalties and Ireland were unlucky not to come away with more when Rory Best was held up on the line.

England settled and Ford, who as a youngster watched former Ireland flyhalf Ronan O'Gara practice when his father, Mike, was part of the Irish coaching team, cut the deficit with a drop goal, but missed a chance to level with his first penalty.

Ford opted to find the corner with his attempt but Devon Toner robbed the lineout and it was Ireland who struck next with a third Sexton penalty.

A clearly pumped up Sexton showed Ford who was boss minutes later when the young England flyhalf dared to try a dummy on his opposite number, only to be dumped on his back.

Ireland had scored only two tries to England's eight in the opening two games and appeared to be missing the accuracy in the final third Schmidt had called for.

The opening five minutes of the second period were more open than the entire first 40 as Sexton edged the home side further ahead with another penalty.

As England's penalty count ticked up, Ireland attacked relentlessly and with another penalty in the offing, Conor Murray kicked into the corner for man of the match Henshaw to field magnificently and touch down.

Sexton added the most difficult of conversions to make it 19-3 but joined a concussed Sean O'Brien on the bench, holding his hamstring. Ford replied with two penalties but, despite late pressure, it was a day to forget for England.

"In the first half we were masters of our own destiny," England coach Stuart Lancaster said. "We played in the wrong areas at times and our discipline wasn't good enough and the timing of the try at the start of the second half was crucial.

"For us we need to understand where it went wrong and learn from it - we now need to focus on our two big games at home."